By Harry Brandt Ayers
In the winter of 1900 a crowd of well wishers from Parker Memorial Baptist Church gathered on the platform of the L&N train station to see off Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Wilburn Ayers and their six children on their journey to China.
It was to be a long journey for the 42-year-old physician and his wife, twenty-five years as a medical missionary to a nation in upheaval; swept by epidemics, plagues, war lords, bandits, revolution and civil war.
They were my Grandparents and one of the six children, Harry Mel, was my father.
This is their story, mainly Grandfather’s story. He was known to me as a boy only as an “emperor” with a white Van Dyke beard. He reigned from an overstuffed chair which in a formal portrait hung in our living room of him in white tie with medals from two early Chinese presidents – objects of awe and envy.
As the train chugged west away from Anniston the Ayers family was filled with excitement, a sense of adventure and anticipation. Grandmother wrote that the children’s animal crackers were gone before the train reached Birmingham.
For the parents there was also an undertow of anxiety. They had read newspaper accounts of a murderous native uprising, the Boxer Rebellion or “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists” centered in Shantung Province, their destination.
The Boxers were a mystic, paramilitary, quasi-religious eruption of resentment at Western, mainly European powers who for 70 years had been seizing parts of Chinese territory for their own.
Missionary compounds were attacked and missionaries murdered as alien influences. One Christian family in Shantung, the Luce family, fled their Tengchow mission in the dead of night, guided by their nurse to the coast where a boat took them to safety. One of their children, Henry, would found Time magazine in his 20s and maintain a fascination with China that gave a skewed picture of the country to Time’s readers.
As the Ayerses slowly made their way to their new home, the Boxer rebellion grew, reaching Beijing where the rebels laid siege to the foreign legation with help from Imperial forces of the Dowager Empress, head of the crumbling Qing dynasty.
What force propelled this family on, suppressing dread images of missionaries beheaded by fanatic Boxers? A strong Christian faith was a given but what steeled them for such an exotic and contingent adventure?.
Clues to the life force driving Grandfather were the daydreams of a boy. He consistently saw himself pursuing a career in journalism or medicine. So strong was the pull of medicine that as a teen-ager he traveled to Athens to buy the medical text Gray’s Anatomy, which he read at night.
Also as a 17- year- old in Hartwell, Georgia he made a public declaration at a Baptist church that he wanted one day to be a foreign missionary. He had satisfied the competing interest in journalism by buying and publishing three weekly newspapers and one daily, Anniston’ s original “Daily Hot Blast.”
In the end, it was “ Faith and Healing,” the title of a little book about his mission, that won out over journalism. I can easily imagine Grandfather, pushing back fears of Boxers by mentally drawing plans of the mission hospital he would build. It would not have occurred to him to wonder if the great venture he had undertaken would prove of value or be a wasted effort.
By the middle of the century, in the last years of his life, however, that was an open question.
But in 1901 when the family arrived in the Shantung port city of Chefoo all that lay ahead. The city was filled with missionaries and other Western refugees from the Boxer uprising, though by September an eight-nation foreign force had occupied Beijing and relieved the legation.
From Chefoo Grandfather and the family were transported by ox cart with a military escort to their destination, the prosperous rural city of Hwanghsien.
Before Dr. Ayers had even set up a proper clinic he was confronted with a dilemma fraught with the lingering anti-Western mood of the province. A wealthy man arrived insisting that the doctor “cut on” his wife, who had a disfiguring jaw infection. The man threatened to throw out his wife, allowed by custom of the time, if the ugly infection were not healed.
Grandfather prayed over the choice and decided to operate, which was done on the wooden kitchen table with chloroform as anesthesia. During the operation the patient stopped breathing and was revived, thus saving his mission and maybe his life.
In time, the Ayers couple undertook the construction of what was astounding to people of the rural city, a two-story house. Invited to view the new house, the ladies were especially confused by the stairs, a challenge which they solved by going up on all fours and descending by bottom bumps.
As their first decade drew to a close in Hwanghsien, the new hospital opened just in time for one of the most calamitous years in Chinese history, the 1911 plague and revolution.
At the end of 1910 and into 1911, a terrible pneumonic plague, more rare and virulent than bubonic, swept down from Manchuria during which infected victims died on the roadside, even within reach of their own houses.
Grandfather’s team from the Warren Memorial Hospital were strange and frightening specters to the population, dressed all in white (the Chinese funeral color) wearing masks and rubber gloves. They did prodigious work to contain the disease until warmer weather when the plague subsided.
Then in October the nation exploded in revolution against the regime of the Dowager Empress. The American consul in Chefoo ordered foreign nationals in the interior to come to the port city, which they obeyed.
When Grandfather heard of the fighting and wounded from Imperial and rebel forces in Hwangshien, the consul allowed him “at his own risk” to return to the hospital, where he found the celebrated veteran missionary Lottie Moon.
Guns on the city wall were less than a quarter mile away from the hospital. To save the institution and patients from both sides, Dr. Ayers summoned prominent citizens of the city and other Christians who had crowded into the relative safety of the city and organized a Red Cross chapter.
Under a white flag and the Red Cross flag, respected by many on both sides, he arranged a truce that would allow Ms. Moon safe passage back to the open port beyond consular authority, Tengchow, where the Luces had served.
As warfare continued, the two forces see-sawing back and forth for control of the city, Grandfather received word that his wife was gravely ill. He set out for Chefoo that night and was attacked by bandits who, when they learned who he was, a doctor who healed even bandits, his belongings were returned with apologies.
In his absence the Red Cross work continued at the hospital but Mrs. Ayers’ lingering illness forced the couple to return to the states.
When Mrs. Ayers was well enough, they returned where for the balance of their years, Grandfather modernized and equipped the hospital and led the fight against an outbreak of cholera. The “best years of my life,” he wrote.
Grandmother never recovered full health and so, with heart-breaking reluctance, they left their home, friends and fulfilling work for the U.S. Citizens of Hwanghsien erected an obelisk in his honor, whose legend read in part “He treated rich and poor alike.”
In his travels throughout the South as a field secretary for the Baptist Mission Board after 1926, he must surely have been aware of the critical view of some missionaries in a 1932 speech by a famous daughter of a China missionary, Pearl Buck, author of the Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Good Earth.”
Ms. Buck was tough in her description of this sort of missionary: “I have seen missionaries…so lacking in sympathy for the people they were supposed to be saving, so scornful of any civilization but their own…so coarse and insensitive among a sensitive and cultivated people, that my heart has fairly bled with shame.”
Possibly Grandfather thought that description was an accurate fit for the minority of narrow-minded and self-important missionaries he had known, a type present in any occupation. But he would be pained to the core of his being by two other events.
In 1944, the invading Japanese, suspecting that the Warren Hospital may be harboring Chiang Kaishek spies, set fire to it and burned it to the ground. In his last years, word came that Chinese Communists had interrogated and beaten to death so-called Western-leaners -- literally on the altar of the old church.
If he despaired, questioning whether his life’s work had come to nothing, no one in the family knew of his depression. Surely his decades of face-to-face relationships could not be snuffed out by the savagery of strangers.
My wife, the editor-in-chief of Longleaf Style, and I did not feel Grandfather’s mission had failed when we visited Hwanghsien in 1982 and were received as celebrities. The eyes and stories of old people we met there spoke lovingly of the family.
Reassurance comes from a scholarly source, Auburn historian Wayne Flynt, who assessed the missionary experience at a conference attended by other scholars, U. S. diplomats and a delegation from Communist China.
Some of the scholars were critical of Western “cultural and religious imperialism,” but the diplomats and especially the PRC delegation praised the legacy of women’s rights, modern agricultural methods and especially modern Western medicine.
The missionary family seen off by members of Parker Memorial did not waste their lives.
H. Brandt Ayers is Chairman and Publisher of The Anniston Star